Did Dick beat Pat?

A casual reader of "The Arrogance of Power" sure might think so. But read the fine print first.



Steve Weinberg
September 1, 2000 8:11PM (UTC)

Before scolding Anthony Summers, author of "The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon," and his New York publisher, Viking, a grudging bow in their directions. As with Summers' books about J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe and the John F. Kennedy assassination, "The Arrogance of Power" demonstrates that the author spends long hours over many years traveling paper trails and people trails as he seeks to understand his subject. For all their flaws, Summers' books have value.

But those flaws! To casual readers, they are not always likely to stand out. Summers (assisted by his journalist-wife, Robbyn Swan, as well as hired researchers) gives even the most precarious evidence the patina of credibility through copious endnotes. "The Arrogance of Power" contains 116 pages of endnotes, set in type so tiny that the page count really ought to be much higher. How many readers will spend much (if any) time matching the information in the text to the sourcing in the endnotes? Not many.

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A look at a book's sourcing, especially of its "Gotcha" moments, is unpleasantly revelatory. One of Summers' freshest, most sensational allegations is that during their 53-year marriage, Richard Nixon beat his wife, Pat, at least once, maybe more often. Viking called attention to the allegation in the press release accompanying the book's publication on Aug. 28. The release says: "On the night of his electoral defeat in 1962 ... Nixon's wife Pat required medical treatment following an assault by her husband." And the book is already teasing readers to the information by Page xiv of the preface, where Summers writes of "touching testimonials" at Richard Nixon's funeral to the couple's long marriage, then adds, "Other memories told a sadder story -- of prolonged marital difficulty, of physical abuse, of threatened divorce."

The detailed allegations appear on Pages 232-237. Summers writes there how research for the book suggested "that Nixon physically attacked his wife after his loss in 1962." The conventional wisdom, Summers says, is that Nixon had remained in his Beverly Hilton hotel suite, so drunk that his aides "were preoccupied with preventing him from going downstairs. Pat reportedly sat alone, sobbing quietly, in an adjoining room." Then they headed home by car. What happened later, at home, is unclear, Summers says, but he labels the talk of abuse "compelling."

In the text itself and in the endnotes, here are the sources mentioned for the supposedly compelling scenario:

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  • A statement by Nixon rival Gov. Pat Brown, "years later," that "we got word at one stage of the campaign that he kicked the hell out of her, beat her." The endnotes show that the Brown statement came from the papers of long-ago Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie. How many readers will notice that? If they do notice, how many will know that among many professional biographers like me, Brodie, while sometimes considered spottily brilliant, is frequently written off as an unreliable researcher and writer?

  • An echo of Brown's statement by his aide Frank Cullen. Did Cullen have independent knowledge? Or did he merely listen to the hearsay from his boss?

  • A comment by journalist Bill Van Petten, "years later," that sometime just before or just after Nixon's bitter public speech in defeat he "beat Pat badly ... so badly that she could not go out the next day." The phrasing suggests Van Petten might have been a witness, but a few sentences later, Summers writes: "Van Petten is dead, and his account as related here comes from a friend to whom he spoke in the early eighties." The endnote about Van Petten's information is confusing rather than enlightening. Despite several readings, I have no idea what it means.

    After providing the Van Petten information, Summers writes, "The first credible corroboration of the 1962 beating allegation was provided by John Sears, a former Nixon aide who went on to political distinction." The use of the word "credible" raises an alarming question: If Sears is the first source Summers finds credible, why is he including Brown, Cullen and Van Petten as sources (indirect as they may be)?

    Sears, Summers says in the text, received his information long after 1962 from Waller Taylor, the Nixon family's lawyer, and from Pat Hillings, identified as Nixon's longtime friend and associate. Furthermore, "As Sears understood it from Taylor, the 1962 beating was not an isolated incident. Spousal abuse, indeed, is almost always repetitive." Maybe Taylor and Hillings had firsthand knowledge, maybe secondhand knowledge, maybe even less reliable information. There is no way to know from Summers' book.

    In 1993, for a book review, I spent weeks reading Summers' biography "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover," and comparing and contrasting Summers' biography with three previous biographies of Hoover researched by scholars and journalists.

    Despite being last in the publishing line, Summers presented some useful new information (such as the extent to which Hoover used covert political dossiers against presidents and members of Congress) and new interpretations of older information.

    But, as with "The Arrogance of Power," Summers practiced the arrogance of hype. The most sensational passages purported to show that he-man, G-man Hoover was a homosexual and a cross-dresser. If true, that information carried significance, especially if it opened up Hoover to blackmail by members of organized-crime families and other unsavory elements. So, I wondered, had all the previous biographers missed the evidence? Or found the so-called evidence and discarded it?

    I found myself disbelieving many passages in Summers' book about Hoover's sexual orientation. Summers dug up Hoover's high school dance card, and the spaces where he would have recorded the names of all the girls he danced with were blank. Presumption: Hoover didn't dance. Is that proof that he was gay? That seems like more than a reach.

    But it was sensational, and it changed our perception of Hoover forever. At the time, it made me wonder what Summers would do for an encore. Now I know.


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